Friday, February 14, 2020

What can we say October 4? World Communion Sunday

   How lovely that World Communion Sunday falls on the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi! His humble embrace of poverty, the stranger, the untouchables, and even the sultan of Islam, his prayerful devotion to Christ, his deep kinship with nature, his reformation of the Church: so many stories from his life illustrate our texts, and all texts really. Francis’s daily to-do list was whatever he read in Scripture. He took the Bible literally – in that he thought he was supposed to do it. For some highlights of his life, check out my “Heroes Found Faithful” blog on him, or my little book, Conversations with St. Francis.

   Let me say a little on Exodus and the Psalter, then focus on Philippians. The Matthew 21:33-46 text, a simplistic, transparent allegory that fuels supersessionist and even anti-Semitic inclinations, frankly leaves me cold. Was Jesus having an off day? Did a clunky editor insert this pericope?

   Exodus 20:1-20. I love simply reading the commandments in worship, or having people read them together. I loathe the way they’ve been politicized. And frankly the way they’ve been ignored, or perverted into a weapon of judgment. Our Psalm 19 reading clarifies that the law is God’s precious gift, the creator’s beautiful and tender care, showing us the way to life.

   Jesus, of course, probed the heart of the commandments, not to give us a thrashing for lusting, that unseen adultery in the heart, or for anger, that silent killer, but to set us free, to disentangle our souls from what weakens and diverts us from God and all good. 

   And how wise of Martin Luther to detect the way there is a Gospel promise hidden in each commandment. Don’t covet? You don’t have to. God provides; you have and are enough. A lovely sermon could be concocted around rummaging through each commandment, or a selection of 2 or 3, teasing out how it’s not a You Oughta Or Else! but a liberation from bondage. No other gods? You don’t need other gods. Rest on the Sabbath? Aren’t you weary? God’s got things under control, so you can rest. You can disconnect and be unavailable – because if you’re always available, you’re never available, to God or others or even your self.

   Psalm 19 is perfect for World Communion. Worldwide access to God through creation, as Paul trumpeted in Romans 1. The heavens speak, the stars sing, nature cries out the beauty, the lavish goodness of God. Ellen Charry, always insightful, suggests (in her Brazos commentary) that “Psalm 19 rings like a sermon to Israel’s cultured despisers, tempted by pagan gods.” Scholars who think Psalm 19 is 2 Psalms stuck together don’t get the heart of God, the Creator, who devised order so our lives could be blessed instead of riddled with confusion and agony, so we needn’t bow before the bogus deities of society.

   “Warned” in v. 11: nizhar can also be translated “becomes radiant.” We’re warned by God’s law, but it makes us radiant, countering the anxiety the Psalm names as omnipresent, always threatening. The antidote to anxiety is, strangely, absorption in the praise of God and a peaceful striving after holiness. Charry detects an intriguing movement here: “Psalm 19 hopes to attract us to the glory of God in stages.” Being awed by God in creation is easy. Wisdom goes deeper. Then becoming pure is harder, but ultimately fulfilling; it’s what the creation calls us toward.

   Philippians 3:4b-14. Paul’s ego! Paul’s self-absorption! No wonder he was hard to get along with, and can be hard to warm up to today. Yet he was the one God used. God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Francis of Assisi, humble him and make him a saint who still shows us the way to God; and God can take an arrogant, self-absorbed Paul, let his egocentric word tumble out of him – and we find God there too.

   We’ll have to sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” this Sunday. “My richest gain…” Francis intentionally lost his riches to be close to Christ. Verse 9 intrigues me. Paul speaks of being “found in him.” Rhetorically I might ask my people Where are you? Where are you found? I’m at my address. Or am I? I’m at work. Is that the place I truly am “found”? I remember each of my children getting lost at some point. I wish I could remember being a child, being lost, and then, aha! There he is! Such joy. We found him. Grace is exactly like that.

   We think God can or should shelter us from suffering. Or maybe not. Paul quite transparently seeks suffering. He wants to share in Christ’s sufferings. He implies we are missing out on Jesus until we too seek a share in his sufferings. How alien to modern piety!

   Think St. Francis once again. He slept on rocks – hoping to be close to nature, close to Jesus, the “rock of ages” cleft for us. He prayed before, not sterile shiny crosses, but crucifixes. Two years before his death, he prayed intently before a crucifix at La Verna, “My Lord Jesus Christ, two graces I ask before I die. One is that I might feel the pain you felt in the hour of your great passion. The second is that I might be filled with the love that drove you to undergo such suffering for us sinners.”

   Who would dare pray such a prayer! Paul suggests we miss the joy until we know Jesus’ sorrow and pain. When you love your spouse or child, if they are in pain, you don’t run away, grateful you feel good. You hurt. You do whatever you can to bear their hurts. You’d take them on yourself if you could.

   So in sermons I sometimes riff on the hymn. Here’s an excerpt from a book I have coming out next year on the theology of hymns (called Unrevealed Until Its Season); this could work as the sermon on Philippians 3:4-14 for me:

   When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. We don't just glance at it. We measure it carefully, size it up, consider every angle. Too often, we sanitize the cross, preferring those of smooth wood or some shiny metal. The original cross would have been of olive wood, gnarled, hacked hurriedly, with human flesh gruesomely nailed into it. Back in 1968, archaeologists discovered an ankle bone from the time of Jesus – pierced by an iron nail. Crucifixion was a gruesome, horrifyingly painful, public humiliation of criminals. Having seen plenty of crosses, the soldiers at the foot of Jesus’ cross didn’t “survey” this one. They didn’t know to be attentive to this one, or didn’t have the surveying skills to see that this was God, this was the start of a revolution of redemption. Looked like any other dying, despised person – which was precisely what God was hoping to achieve.

   “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.” Just meditate on that for a minute, or an hour, or the rest of your life. Blood and perspiration were mingled all over his ravaged body, and then after the piercing by the soldier’s cruel lance, Rock of ages, cleft for us, blood and water flowed, mingled. But it wasn’t tragedy and justice mingled, although most observers then would have thought so. It was sorrow and love, God eternal, finally and fully manifested love for us, mingled with sorrow over our brokenness, our waywardness, our confusion, our mortality. Medieval paintings depicted little angels flying around the cross with cups to catch that sorrow and love flowing down. It’s precious. It’s medicine. It’s life for the world.

   Isaac Watts asks us, “Did ever thorns compose so rich a crown?” Museums all over Europe display sumptuous crowns. At Elizabeth II’s coronation, the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on her head. It was heavy, forged of 22 karat gold, with 444 precious stones, aquamarines, topazes, rubies, amethysts, sapphires. She then knelt to receive the body and blood of our Lord. Did she ponder his crown, bristling thorns gashing forehead, temples, and scalp? Or the sacrificial love that refused the derision of spectators: “Save yourself” (Luke 23:37).

   This cross isn’t just some religious artifact, or even the mechanism God uses to get you into heaven once you’ve died. It fundamentally alters our values, and how we live. If this is God, if the heart of God was fully manifest in this moment, if this is what God’s love actually looks like, then everything changes. “My richest gain I count but loss” (echoing Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8). “Pour contempt on all my pride.” “Forbid it Lord that I should boast, save in the death of Christ” (echoing Paul’s other words in Galatians 6:14). “All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them.”

   Indeed, the more we ponder the crucified Lord on the cross, the less attached we are to the gadgets and baubles of this world, the less arrogant we become - and then we are ready to abandon what we were clinging to, as we realize in the face of our mortality, and God’s redeeming love, these formerly valued things are just nothing. It is as if someone at the foot of the cross were reading the book of Ecclesiastes aloud: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Indeed.

   Casting aside vain fantasies, we don’t walk away from our survey back to our old life. Instead, we get caught up in Christ’s causes, and become generous with our money and things. What is your offering to God? Watts’s hymn imagines “Were the whole realm of nature mine” (an absurd idea, that the richest of the rich could have so much!) “that were an offering far too small.” No gift I could muster would be enough to begin to match Christ's sacrificial gift to me, to us - so when then is my giving so measured, so chintzy?

   We get busy and deluded and forget what the life of faith is about. We water it down to a little add-on, something we indulge in when convenient, a place we turn when we're in a pickle. But the last words of the hymn get to the truth of things - and stand as a stirring, unavoidable challenge to us, if we sing with any sincerity at all: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Not this compartment of my soul, or this segment of my life, or the part of me I don't mind parting with. My soul. My life. My all.
  {Images: one of Chagall's several paintings of Moses with the commandments; one of Giotto's frescoes of the stigmatization of Francis; one of Rouault's Crucifixions; von Grünewald’s smaller and less familiar crucifixion; then a detail from his more famous one.}

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